Booth’s not-so-merry band of misfits
Captain J.W. Booth of the Confederate Secret Service resided in room 228 at the National Hotel in Washington, which just happened to be the same residence as the War Department censor because the city’s only public telegraph office was directly across the street.
For six months Booth had been involved in a grand scheme to kidnap President Lincoln so he could be taken to Richmond in chains for a victory parade and then ransomed, but with the war almost over, that plot had suddenly become meaningless.
John Surratt, Booth’s primary courier, was working closely with Booth on this grand mission-impossible adventure, and so were dozens of others.
Their primary accomplices, however, represented a motley crew of misfits and the mentally challenged, with one cold-blooded killer. After a mule kick disfigured his jaw, Lewis Powell volunteered for the Confederate Army at age 17. He became such a devoted killer, he carried the skull of one of his victims as an ashtray. After many battles, Powell was wounded and captured, taken to a concentration camp and escaped with the help of the Confederate Secret Service in Maryland. He joined Mosby’s Rangers, where he became known as “Lewis the Terrible.” Although the official story is that Powell deserted this guerrilla force and decided to move to Baltimore to pursue a new life, in truth, he was more likely just moved into undercover operations, and the biggest at the time involved the Lincoln kidnapping, a plot led by Booth. In January of 1895, they met for the first time, and Booth enlisted Powell in the plot. From that point on, Powell always referred to Booth as “Captain,” and would show no hesitation following any command.
Booth and Surratt differed on the best plan of action, as Booth felt the kidnapping could take place at Ford’s Theater because the back exit offered an escape into a maze of alleys. Booth’s attention to spook-craft was amazing, and he probably got the idea of drilling a peephole in the door to the presidential box, as well as needing an improvised door-jam to prevent anyone from entering the hall leading to the box, all important details that would become employed for Lincoln’s assassination.
Surratt insisted the attempt needed to be done outside the city, where they weren’t surrounded by police and soldiers in all directions. This plot involved many changes of horses, as well as sabotage in their wake to slow pursuit—an entire squad devoted to felling tress and blowing bridges. Of course, the plot was immediately revealed to the War Department by one of its secret agents, Louis Weichman, an old schoolmate of John Surratt, and War Department employee, who abruptly moved into the boarding house, and started acting like a rebel. He begged to become an active participant in the kidnapping, but Surratt told him not possible since Weichman could neither ride nor shoot, while Surratt and Booth were expert at both. Weichman would eventually become the key witness against Surratt’s mother, but would later recant the testimony and insist she was innocent, and then recant the recant in writing right before his death.
The only others involved we know of for sure were David E. Herod, who worked as a drug store clerk and followed the famous rising-star Booth around like a puppy dog. Herod reportedly had a dimished IQ and acted 11 years old, which is why he’s usually described as a youngster. George “Andrew” Atzerodt was a German immigrant who’d recently been recruited because he had a rowboat on the Potomac, a boat needed for the escape. I call him Dirty Andy because he looks filthy in every photo. Atzerodt knew few details and was working for hire. He was a big-time drinker and and small-time blockade runner who was being put out-of-business by the end of the war.
On March 4, 1865, Lincoln was inaugurated for the second time on the steps of the Capitol and a photo by Alexander Gardner would later reveal Booth wearing a silk top hat in the VIP gallery, within spitting distance of the President as he took the oath of office. But in the front row of the peanut gallery on ground level nearest the President stand Powell, Atzerodt, Herold and possibly even Surratt disguised as a Union soldier.
This may have been another possible kidnap attempt that did not materialize. For whatever reason, shortly after this inauguration, Booth’s plan shifted to murder, although it’s not clear why. Lincoln had little fear of assassination during his first term because he believed any replacement would be worse on the South than himself. Yet right around this time, Lincoln began having premonitions of his imminent death, and seemed almost resigned to it.
Since the morning newspaper announced the President and General Grant would be attending a light comedy at Ford’s Theater that night, this news boded poorly since Grant’s presence would necessitate a higher level of security. Also, Grant was the national hero of the moment, and a rare sight in Washington, which meant all eyes would be on the box through much of the play.
The Metropolitan Hotel was just down the street from the National where Booth resided. On the morning of the assassination, Booth met with a prominent Jewish lawyer named Simon Wolf, head of B’nai B’rith. Wolf and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were close as both were from Ohio.
Booth rented a horse for the day, and followed General Grant’s carriage as he suddenly departed town, almost as if to make sure the General was not going to disrupt his plans for the evening. The general and his wife were disturbed by the rider in black galloping alongside and staring into their coach.
Surratt had left town, likely because he didn’t want any part of Booth’s new operation, but also because he may have had a mission to seed letters from Booth back to the War Department to make it look like Booth was headed to Canada.
Four hours after the assassination, the first detectives on the case marched straight to Mary Surratt’s boarding house, which somehow had already been identified as the center of the conspiracy (though Booth had not even officially been announced a suspect yet). Meanwhile, the room Dirty Andy had checked into the previous day at the Kirkwood (and never occupied, as he already had a room at a different, cheaper hotel) was found stuffed with evidence implicating Booth, evidence that was initially strangely over-looked.
Meanwhile, although Booth was on the run for days, and assisted and aided by a dozen sympathizers along the way, only this little crew of misfits would end up hanged. And the cover-up might have worked, except Stanton tossed in Mary Surratt, and painted her as the evil den mother who hatched the plot. But the wheels on that hoax fell off, and knowledge Stanton railroaded an innocent woman onto the gallows destroyed his political career. He was dead within four years under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
A little-known fact about Stanton: he was found twice passed out at his desk and some speculated he’d acquired an addiction to opium. Perhaps, but his primary addiction was power. His first move as Secretary of War had been to move the telegraph into his office. His second move was getting control of the Union Gestapo, the National Detective Police (NDP).
In the first few weeks after the assassination, Stanton’s iron grip matched that of any fascist dictator in history, and though he fought tooth and nail to maintain this power, it would soon all be stripped away, and he died a broken man haunted by the ghost of Mary Surratt.